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The Real Abang Adik’s

By JONATHAN LEE RONG SHENG


First published in The Star on 10 March 2024.


Realistic story: ‘Abang Adik’ tells the story of two undocumented brothers whose quest to obtain citizenship in Malaysia is fraught with challenges. — Handout


WHEN Abang Adik, a movie portraying the lives of two stateless brothers in Pudu screened in Malaysia, it sparked conversations on statelessness that I could have never expected.


Director Jin Ong’s work captured Malaysian audiences’ attention by using familiar backdrops while telling the story of a community often hidden from plain sight.


However, the real Abang Adik’s may be closer than we think.


In a MalayMail article titled “Counting Malaysia’s ‘invisible’ people”, the Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas (DHRRA) said 16,000 stateless people in Peninsular Malaysia were identified from 2016 to June 2023.


Out of 16,392 verified stateless cases registered with DHRRA, an estimated 7,000 have been recognised as Malaysians. The biggest proportion of the remainder is classified as childhood statelessness.


It must be noted that Malaysia does not have official records of the exact number of stateless persons.


As my tenth column under Youth Pulse, I am grateful to The Star for providing me with the platform to air my views, but I am conscious that Malaysia’s ‘invisible’ population do not share the same opportunities that I have had.


For a change, today’s column spotlights two stateless Malaysians who shared with me their experiences.


Jennyfer Yap, 25

“My early life was horrible. I was treated differently from other students, kicked out of school, yet remained clueless as to why I was treated this way until I turned 12,” Yap recalled.


Yap was born to a Malaysian father and a Filipino mother in Melaka. She shared that her parents did not register their marriage. As a result, Yap’s birth certificate remained incomplete, lending her a non-citizen status.


 “I was constantly mocked and insulted in government school, and eventually I was kicked out. I never really understood what was going on until I made my IC (identity card) at twelve years old," she shared


Yap and her brother were eventually sent to Desa Amal Jireh, a welfare home situated in Semenyih, Selangor, to be looked after.

“The team at Desa Amal Jireh was very kind as they persuaded different schools to take me in but I eventually had to be homeschooled,” Yap said.


The United Nations Human Rights Commission outlines key government services that stateless citizens are unable to access, namely education, jobs, and healthcare.


Unfortunately, these services are unavailable to stateless Malaysians like Yap, who worries about the medical cost that would be incurred at the home if she seeks treatment.


Yap also shared about her late father who relentlessly went to government departments where he, in Yap’s words, “begged officials” to grant the siblings their ICs.


She said her father never gave up fighting for the siblings to obtain the simple blue card many of us keep casually in our pockets. The lengths her father went to caused immense stress and led to an illness he eventually succumbed to.


“Even on his deathbed, my father’s wish was that we (Yap and her brother) could one day obtain our IC,” Yap recounted.


It would not be until November 2022 that Yap obtained her IC after several gruelling question sessions with staff at the immigration department.


Yap is now pursuing a Diploma in Early Childhood Education and hopes to use that to help other stateless Malaysians. 


“There was no more fear of possibly being caught, or being unable to find a job. I felt truly free.


“I hope that the government can exercise more empathy when viewing stateless Malaysians,” she said.


Nurul Akashah, 26

Akashah was born and raised in Malaysia to a Malaysian mother and an Indonesian mother. Her parents did not legally register their marriage, leaving Akasha unable to automatically obtain Malaysian citizenship.


Also unable to claim her mother’s citizenship, she is now stateless.


Akashah has been trying since she was 17 to apply for citizenship. However, without proper guidance, her efforts failed.


“I have always been going to the National Registration Headquarters (JPN) but they have always been delaying the process. 


I have even been called an anak haram (bastard) before, and it was very hurtful,” she shares.

When asked about the sentiment that many stateless Malaysians, particularly youths, are bearing the mistakes of their parents, Akashah agreed and said this was “very unfair”.


“I know what I am, I am not an illegitimate child. It is just that my parents made the mistake of not registering their marriage in Malaysia.


I hope that one day, I can be acknowledged as a Malaysian so that I can live a normal life in my own country," she stressed. 


Akashah echoed Yap’s experience of being unable to obtain a formal education or find a permanent job.


Of her three siblings, two managed to get citizenship after being adopted by other families. 

The third, however, is still waiting together with her. 


“My younger brother is scared of the outside world. He is scared to go out, so I have to support him,” she shared. 


Unlike Yap, Akashah, who has written to the home minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution and JPN and was rejected on both occasions, has not obtained an IC. The hopes of that may be dwindling soon.


Section 1(e) of the Federal Constitution plainly states that every person born in Malaysia who is not a citizen of any country will be a Malaysian citizen. 


It plainly states that children born in Malaysia who are “not born a citizen of any country otherwise” will receive Malaysian citizenship by operation of the law.


Now, the Home Ministry is proposing to change the words “operation of the law” to “by registration”. This would mean that citizenship for Malaysia-born stateless children will now become a non-automatic, application-based, and discretionary process. 


No longer would the courts have a say over the non-compliance of this clause.


Akashah expressed her disappointment at the proposed amendment, calling it dream-crushing.


She calls on the government to recognise that stateless Malaysians too have hopes and dreams, and while the existing process is difficult enough, she opines that the new amendments will snuff out all hope.


Concluding thoughts

Speaking with the two interviewees, Yap and Akashah, broke my heart and made me acutely aware of my privilege.


I believe rather than relying on vague discretion, we need to collectively build a citizenship-granting system that is just, transparent, and responsive to the lives and challenges of Malaysia-born stateless communities.


The proposed citizenship amendment laws are cruel, to say the least. Apart from the aforementioned one that affects stateless children, the amendments also diminish the rights of abandoned children.


The Home Ministry’s task force has framed the issue as a matter of national security. 


While important, tightening already strict citizenship laws would only funnel people into statelessness and dangerous situations of vulnerability and marginality.


Far from creating a secure national space, these moves will force stateless communities to live out of sight and under the radar, especially stateless children, who would then become more vulnerable to human traffickers, criminal gangs, and dangerous situations.


I call for more compassion from the home minister, Saifuddin Nasution, and remind him that his party was elected into government in the hopes of more progressive lawmaking.


I also call for Fahmi Fadzil and Teo Nie Ching, minister and deputy minister of the Communications Ministry, who sang high praises of Abang Adik to recognise that the film is based on very real issues in Malaysia which they can address as lawmakers.


Let us build towards a more compassionate, understanding and caring Malaysia.

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